Compassion focused therapy, or CFT, draws on evolutionary theory, neuroscience, attachment theory, developmental, social and clinical psychology, as well as the spiritual traditions, to formulate an integrated model of the mind. CFT then goes on to help us to work with the mind, manage it, reduce our suffering and promote flourishing.
It was developed by Professor Paul Gilbert as an approach to psychotherapy, especially to try to help people who experience self-criticism and shame, but it has now been used and evaluated with a wide range of clinical problems. The key here is that CFT is a psychotherapy, and so it involves aspects of therapy such as creating a therapeutic relationship, doing an assessment, constructing a case formulation, and developing and carrying out a treatment plan.
A part of CFT is compassionate mind training, or CMT. This is the psychoeducation and skills building part of CFT, but can also be delivered as a stand alone course. The term “compassionate mind training” first appeared in the literature in a 2005 chapter by Paul Gilbert and Chris Irons called Focused therapies and compassionate mind training for shame and self-attacking. This chapter was in the book Compassion: Conceptualisations, research and use in psychotherapy.
Shortly after that chapter was published, in 2006, Paul Gilbert and Sue Procter published a pilot study using CMT, which showed significant reductions in participants’ reports of depression and anxiety, self-criticism and shame, and significant increases in their ability to self-sooth and self-reassure.
CMT has developed over the years, and in a 2016 paper, Kirstin McEwan and Paul Gilbert found that practicing CMT exercises over a two week period helped to reduce these same kinds of participant experiences: depression, anxiety, stress and self-criticism…and increase self-compassion…and self-reassurance.
In 2017, Marcela Matos, Paul Gilbert and several other researchers found a whole range of psychological and physiological benefits of CMT in a randomised control trial.
And in 2020, Chris Irons and Charlie Heriot-Maitland ran a standardised 8-week CMT course with members of the general population and again found reductions in self-criticism and increases in compassion and self-compassion, among lots of other positive changes.
Spoiler alert! James Kirby and I, along with Maddy Romaniuk and her team at Gallipoli Medical Research Foundation, have recently competed a study with military veterans and their spouses using a 12 session CMT group program with some very interesting results…so stay tuned for that one, hopefully coming out soon!
So, what is CMT?
CMT is generally an 8-week course, 2 and a half hours a week, that begins in session 1 with defining compassion, how and why we suffer, and the role of our tricky brains and the old brain-new brain loops we get caught up in.
Session 2 looks at the “three circles model” of emotions—threat, drive and soothing—and if you would like to hear more about that, you can see my fun video on YouTube exploring the three circles model according to three 80s hit songs!
Session 3 goes a little deeper, discussing the idea that we are made up of multiple parts, and that one of those parts is the compassionate self. And this is at the heart of CMT—cultivating this compassionate self.
Session 4 starts to explore the three flows of compassion, beginning with the flow of directing compassion to others. The compassionate self helps with this, offering compassion to others, and in this session CMT also takes a look at fears, blocks and resistances to compassion, and in particular to this first flow.
Session 5 discusses the second flow of compassion…how we can open ourselves up to receiving compassion from others. This is a tricky one, and so CMT explores the fears, blocks and resistances again, starting to identify opportunities to notice and accept compassion from others in our lives.
Session 6 focuses in on self-compassion, bringing the compassionate self to ourselves, exploring practical skills and strategies, and examining the fears, blocks and resistances that may arise for this flow.
Session 7 looks at another important part—the critical self—and we explore the forms and functions of self-criticism and how to direct compassion to this part of ourselves.
And session 8 brings in a range of other parts, especially the big three—angry self, anxious self, and sad self—and how we can extend our own compassion to these evolutionarily important, yet sometimes very difficult, emotional selves. In this last session CMT also explores how to maintain it all, living a compassionate life…inside and out.
Importantly, throughout these sessions are lots of practical exercises and techniques. Things like mindfulness, breathing exercises, imagery exercises, setting compassionate intentions and taking compassionate actions, deploying the compassionate self to bring compassion to aspects of ourselves and others, especially in order to relieve suffering.
And there is home practice. Audio recordings, building self-awareness, behavioural tasks and little experiments to help move from learning about compassion, to practicing it, and eventually embodying the compassionate self, this part of ourselves that is wise, strong, courageous, and committed to being kind, caring, helpful, supportive…and compassionate.
How to experience CMT?
If you’re interested in experiencing CMT, there are a few things you can do. First, please check out my book The Gifts of Compassion, and the companion personal practice workbook, which is based on CFT and the CMT approach. There are also several other great books and I will list a few in the description below.
Second, there is now a wonderful app called The Self Compassion App developed by Chris Irons and Elaine Beaumont. I understand it is currently on iPhone and will soon be available on Android, but check it out at the link in the description below.
Finally, I run a live action CMT course on Zoom on a regular basis. We have had some wonderful groups of participants through the course, and I would be delighted to hear from you if you are interested in learning more or signing up for future dates. We try to run it on different days and at different times to account for time zones, so wherever you are I hope you might be able to join us. Just email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thanks so much. I hope this has been useful to hear about and understand compassionate mind training. And if you are interested, please visit my YouTube Channel—I publish weekly videos on living a compassionate life…inside and out! I hope to see you here again soon.